I’ve received my fair share of fan mail for my work here, but something about the first excited email I received from a young lady named Lily C (named changed for her protection and privacy), who I’ve been conversing back and forth with over the last few days, really captured me, in part because it perfectly encapsulated part of Pigtails in Paint‘s raison d’être. I am going to quote her first two paragraphs in full, because I think she deserves that. She wrote:
I came across your site while looking for answers or comfort or acceptance. I started with Nabokov so many years ago and went all the way to Caravaggio and Carroll and Ovenden, then to your site. Let me explain. When I was around four years old, I was repeatedly sexually abused by a male family friend, who was twelve or thirteen and had been abused himself (and the cycle probably continued all the way up the line to Adam). When I was nine, it was a neighbor who was around forty, and when I was twelve/thirteen it was a few strangers on a few trains. As you can imagine, these events soiled my sexuality a good deal for it took away my right to explore it of my own accord. Truly, I feel that innocence isn’t lost with virginity, but instead when sex becomes carnal, forced, and fake– an apple made entirely of sugar, rather than the ripe, red fruit it should be. The boy treated me as if he loved me, the older man explicitly told me so, and the strangers on the train touched me blindly, without love. It confused me. I’m not sure if you believe at all in the concept of the nymphet (popularized by Nabokov but surely recognized well before then) but even if you don’t, I do, and I believe I was one.
After all that happened to me, I became hyper-sexual, which isn’t uncommon for girls in this circumstance, but I corrupted my sexuality near to the point of extinction because I was endlessly searching for a way to reclaim and re-explore it without the notions that were forced upon me. Then, just a year ago, I met a boy who saw the child and the nymphet in me and he nurtured it and now I’m regaining that small portion that was lost; what I call innocent sexuality. Indeed, I feel like a child and a woman all at the same time and I’ve found a beautiful balance and it feels so good to be this way. However, I am still traumatized, and ever since those events began I have struggled with child love. One of my darkest secrets, but one that I can share because I’m no longer afraid of it (though I am ashamed), is that in my young teenage years I became obsessively fascinated with child pornography. This, of course, stems solely from the personality split that occurred within me from the abuse, and I sought after children because I wanted badly to reconnect with the part of the child within who was lost. I’m still coming to terms with this loss. I disconnected myself from the porn after I had met my love, and indeed everything that dealt with themes of child love were thrown away or pushed out of my head out of fear. I still get pangs of heart-wrenching adoration for certain little girls, and it really confuses me in the moment. This past month I have been searching around the Internet for something that would satiate this need to connect, that wouldn’t be a simple cover-up as the child porn was– and the point of all this, really, is to say that I’ve found it on your blog.
When I founded Pigtails, it was first and foremost a way for me to process my own complex feelings about young girls through the endless manifestations of them embodied in art, and to recognize the nobler ideas behind artistic expression in a way that honored girls holistically without demolishing or changing their girlish nature. As I’ve said before, Pigtails is itself an art project, and, as good art should, it has since come to represent many things for many people. So, it meant a great deal to me when Lily explained what Pigtails was for her and how it soothed a need she felt in herself to recapture the feelings of being both innocent and sexually alive at the same time—in other words, to be the girl she would’ve been had her burgeoning sexuality not been corrupted and directed by outside forces. With a wisdom surpassing her nineteen years, she managed to express what it means succinctly and artfully:
Innocence to me is a wonder and a curiosity free from construct and self-inhibition. Innocence is exploring without boundaries or insecurities (apart from those boundaries that keep one safe).
Notice that nowhere in this definition does she include the concept of utter sexual ignorance, for the truth is, kids are sexual beings. The issue isn’t that sexual abuse “sexualizes” children, but rather that it swaps their free-form, still developing sexuality out for something artificial, fixed and forced, and therefore (to the child) something much less fun and interesting. It is not dissimilar from an adult taking a child’s free-flowing imagination and shaping it to by coercing, guilt-tripping or pressuring the child to create only what that particular adult finds beautiful. When this happens (as it frequently does), children tend to become disillusioned with their own creativity, and consequently, to lose interest in being creative. For kids, the end product of creative expression is not generally the driving force behind it; it is, rather, the joy of creation itself.
Well, all of that applies to child sexuality as well, and therein lies the key to understanding it. Society as a rule tends to either ignore, devalue or deny the existence of child sexuality altogether. This is why we have consistently been so wrongheaded about how to deal with children and sex, and consequently, why I believe sexual abuse is still going fairly strong today even with the severe taboos and laws in place. Society itself has effectively fetishized children’s innocence to the point where they now fail to understand what it really means, or the harm that this impossible standard often causes to children themselves. With our prevailing concept of the perfectly asexual child, we have erected an image of the child which most real children could never meet, and that failure can bring shame and guilt on them, the very things child abusers often use to control kids and keep them quiet, and which can cause them to be victimized again and again. On the flip side of that same coin, the innocence fetish has become attractive in itself to some people, and by extension, so does the prospect of violating that innocence, warping or corrupting it.
But I’m not here to talk about that. I am here to discuss Lily’s art, which she sent me samples of in her second email, and which I immediately fell in love with. This is real outsider art, folks—like the work of Henry Darger. It is pure expression, motivated by a true creative instinct that isn’t necessarily aimed at an end goal, much like that of a child. Lily says of her work,
It is rare for me to take pencil to paper with an idea in mind. Usually I will be fixated on some aesthetic form (e.g. the shape of the fingers, an eye, a nose, a word) at the time of drawing and I start with these things, but rarely does the attention awarded to that specific aesthetic point manifest as the focal point of the work. It’s very spontaneous; it just comes out of my fingers, really, and therefore it comes almost directly from my subconscious. In a way all my pieces are connected to the dream world. When I’m done drawing I look at the page in surprise, usually, at the ideas that have presented themselves to me through such an arbitrary method, much like waking from a dream.
Of particular interest to Ron were the animal/human hybrid pieces. One is a type of centaur, an equine body topped by a human head. The ornate decorations she has given the centaur, including the hood, are all quite lovely. The long distortions of the equine form call to mind Salvador Dali’s elephants and the horse from The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The other hybrid is a lemur’s posterior topped by a human girl’s torso and head. A strange choice for such a hybrid, and yet it works. The addition of the wind gives the image a nice buzz of energy. The lemur girl is busy, maybe storing fruit away for the winter, while the wind blows. The image suggest autumn, which is, appropriately enough, a season of transition, great activity and preparation for the future, things that most teen girls are well acquainted with.
The meanings behind them are also quite personal for Lily and tie in to the childhood theme that recurs through her work:
The animal/human hybrids are directly sourced from who I am as an individual. I have a very strong connection to the child within myself, and indeed some parts of me are fully a child (if that makes sense). As I’m sure you and many of your readers know, children have the remarkable ability to attune themselves to animal spirits; they are simply closer to the Earth, closer to the essence of existence which can be found in its most complete form in nature. I embody this spirit in my paintings because my creative abilities are intrinsically linked to my childishness.
My favorite, piece, meanwhile, is a blue-skinned alien girl. There exists a striking contrast between the exoticness of the alien and the prosaic nature of her expression, which embodies a common struggle of girls everywhere to forge their own identity and is spoken very much in the urban patois of a modern teen: “Can’t live like I wanna.” Of course, since it is Lily expressing this sentiment through her art, it means much more than that. Some might be tempted to ascribe a Postmodern irony here, but to do so I think would be to gravely misunderstand the artist. Indeed, Lily herself has confessed that she doesn’t fully understand what is going on in this work and finds it troubling at times.
The words come from a song called ‘I Ate Your Soul’ by Grieves. This painting is from one of the hardest points in my life. I drew it when I was fifteen and kept it for a little while without color or words. At that point she was just the girl, and she was in a much more vulnerable position with her legs spread open and a pained expression on her face. I redrew it multiple times over the next two years, but it never seemed right to me. Usually I feel a sense of relief when a sketch or a drawing is finished, but not with her. When I was eighteen and in university I listened to a lot of hip-hop and I was fixated on the aforementioned track, listening to only this song over and over. I was in my dorm room one night listening to the song and very distressed because I hadn’t drawn anything for a long, long time. I had her in front of me and I looked at her and felt extremely disgusted by her, so I traced her yet again and scribbled those lyrics which had been stuck in my head, and she seemed more complete. She ignited my creativity in that sense again so I’m grateful for her, but she still scares me.
Her girls can also take on the semblance of clowns, with odd splotches of color over eyes, chin and cheeks. Or bearing a jester’s cap and a protruding tongue. But in short order one realizes that these are not cheerful characters. They’re naked, for one thing, and it isn’t the carefree nakedness we usually see with children. It is awkward, uncertain, defensive. One girl, her body contorted impossibly and furtively away from the viewer, looks to be masturbating, a coil of poisonous green smoke wafting from the cigarette in her other hand. The girl in the jester’s cap feels rather more devilish than comedic here, with her protruding tongue, her sharp claws and a piece of intestine snaking out of a slit in her belly.
The darker aspects of Lily’s art can of course be interpreted as a manifestation of her sexual abuse. Lily herself frames it this way:
I use my art to explore all components of my existence, including my sexuality. My intense focus on sexuality in art started when I was around six years old and would draw crude genitalia on figures then quickly scribble them out for modesty. I don’t know if this interest stemmed from abuse or innate curiosity. My abuse started when I was as young as two (however, I only remember specific instances from when I was five), but I don’t remember everything because that is past the point where my memory can recall such trauma. A lot of what happened to me is not accessible, it lingers in my subconscious, so naturally it would eventually come out through my art; the only access point. The abuse affected me in a most confusing way so that I didn’t know what sexuality was or how it fit into my life or myself, and I began to explore it with nude figures of my own age and older engaging in sexual acts, and this began when I was twelve. As my work progressed the figures became younger and younger, and less sexually involved, until I was drawing fetuses in the womb! Through this, I was able to explore sexuality in the context of age. I found that the young girls I drew had a profound sexual energy that could not be expressed, that was actually on the very verge of being expressed but they did not know exactly how to do it because of their age or some other block. The babies had a sexual energy, but did not express it except through simply being (as all things do– even rocks have a minuscule amount of sexual energy which they exude only by existing in the world). The fetuses were fetuses and I could not really identify them. I remember one drawing in particular, made when I was fifteen. There was a fetus in a disembodied amniotic sac, about 50 days old, and a female off to the left side of the drawing who looked to be about eleven years old by her body proportions, screaming. At the top of the page was a cluster of female heads with hollow eyes, connected by their hair. On the next page was a female with a goat head, fourteen years old, bound in barbed wire and some poetry about serpents off to the right. Strange stuff. The connection between my childhood and my art is formed in many locations within me. It is formed through the subconscious by trauma, it’s formed by the inherently strong link to my imagination forged in childhood, and it’s formed by my innate tendency to express myself creatively on paper which I have been doing since before I can remember. But there’s a lot of weird stuff going on that I haven’t quite figured out yet, so I don’t doubt that some connections haven’t yet been discovered.
Lily’s images often swirl with text, some of it inexplicable but clearly channeled from her subconscious. In Alien Boss, the text is as much the focus of the work as the imagery is. In fact, text and imagery are so intertwined that they are nearly inseparable. The words slither and writhe on the page, getting jumbled up so that one might read them in a variety of ways. Before I was provided with the title of this work, I interpreted one line in the piece to read, “Boss, the alien is coming”—Lily rather intended it to read, “The alien boss is coming.” Either one might be appropriate in the context, to say nothing of the possible double entendre in the word “coming,” given what is occurring on the page.
In another, green-hued girls and mechanical birds prance around while a disembodied infantile mouth commands the viewer to “Fuck ME.” Confrontational? Perhaps. Necessary? Quite.
But it’s not been all doom and gloom for Lily. I will leave you with a hopeful note from Lily herself:
Apart from the abuse my childhood was a happy one. I spent most of my time alone, climbing trees and catching insects, building worm piles and playing with cars. I was happiest among the trees and the grass and the dirt, thinking about things. I felt powerful when I fell from a tall branch and scraped my arms up badly and did not cry. Also when I ate with the wasps, and let spiders crawl across my hands, and when I got so dirty I turned the bathtub black. When I was a little girl I didn’t restrain myself from anything, I did whatever I wanted without fear and I had a very strong moral code; I didn’t hurt anything or anyone, I helped wherever I was needed. This is a point I would like to reach again, and I’m not far away. If I could embody the spirit of myself as a little girl, this would be the utmost point of my spirituality and creativity.